News & Current Affairs

August 5, 2008

K2 survivors describe avalanche

Survivors of an expedition to the top of the world’s second-highest mountain have described scenes of panic after an avalanche hit the group on its descent.

Eleven climbers died on K2, in Pakistan, over the weekend.

As about 25 climbers descended from the peak of K2 in the darkness on Friday, the avalanche swept some climbers away and left others stranded.

An Italian member of the group has been reached by rescuers and taken to an advance base camp on the mountain.

“People were running down but didn’t know where to go,” Dutch survivor Wilco van Rooijen told Reuters news agency from a Pakistani military hospital where he is being treated for frostbite.

“So a lot of people were lost on the mountain on the wrong side, wrong route and then you have a big problem.”

The Death Zone

Many regard the 8,611m (28,251ft) peak as the world’s most difficult to climb.

In the deadliest day in K2’s history, the avalanche occurred when a chunk from an ice pillar snapped away on a steep gully called the Bottleneck.

Fixed ropes that the climbers relied on were torn away and several climbers were swept to their deaths.

Others froze to death after they were stranded high on the mountain in the high-altitude level above 8,000 metres climbers call the Death Zone – where there is not enough oxygen to support life.

The Italian climber still on the mountain, Marco Confortola, spoke by satellite phone to his brother Luigi.

“Up there it was hell,” Ansa news agency quoted him as telling his brother.

“During the descent, beyond 8,000 metres (26,000 feet), due to the altitude and the exhaustion I even fell asleep in the snow and when I woke up I could not figure out where I was”.

Pakistani helicopter pilots are to attempt to reach Mr Confortola on Tuesday at the advance base camp at 6,000 metres where he has been taken by rescue climbers.

Killer mountain

Mr van Rooijen said people in the large group of climbers – composed of several teams that had waited for a break in the weather to climb the mountain since July – had failed to work together after disaster struck.

“They were thinking of using my gas, my rope,” he said. “So actually everybody was fighting for himself and I still do not understand why everybody were leaving each other.”

He said he spent Friday night huddled in the snow above the Bottleneck with two other climbers, before making his way down the rest of the mountain.

He was airlifted by military helicopter from the mountain on Monday along with another Dutch climber.

He said some ropes had been laid in the wrong position – a mistake which took several valuable hours to correct, delaying the summit push until just before darkness.

Pakistani authorities said three South Koreans, two Nepalis, two Pakistani porters, and French, Serbian, Norwegian and Irish climbers had died on the mountain.

Expedition organisers only learned of the avalanche after a group of climbers arrived back at the mountain’s base camp on Saturday evening.

Only a few hundred people have climbed K2 and dozens have died in the attempt.

The fatality rate for those who reach the summit at 27% is about three times higher than that for Mount Everest.

One of the worst single-day death tolls was on Everest on 11 May 1996, when eight people died in summit attempts.

Six people fell to their deaths or disappeared during a storm on K2 on 13 August 1995.

The summit of K2 was first reached by two Italians, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, on 31 July 1954.

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